AT&T and Time Warner, two of the largest communications companies in the world, have been moving towards a merger for a year now. The $85-billion merger was expected to be finalized on Oct. 22, and they expected to have no legal problem in doing so.
But that was before Makan Delrahim entered the picture.
Before President Donald Trump appointed Delrahim as antitrust chief of the Department of Justice, sources close to Delrahim said that he thought the merger wasn’t a “major antitrust problem,” per Politico. But when he took the post in September, Delrahim changed his tune. Now, the DOJ has issued an ultimatum to the two companies: if AT&T Inc. is to complete its acquisition of Time Warner Inc., either Time Warner must sell off Turner Broadcasting, which (among other things) includes CNN, or AT&T must “jettison” DirecTV.
Politico reports that sources close to the deal say the only reason to do this would be to capitulate to Donald Trump:
“The only reason you would divest CNN would be to kowtow to the president because he doesn’t like the coverage,” the source said. “It would send a chilling message to every news organization in the country.”
Trump himself criticized the merger over a year ago, claiming it would give “too much concentration of power in the hands of too few.” That makes this a fairly easy puzzle to solve: Delrahim didn’t think the merger was an antitrust issue until Trump appointed him chief, therefore it’s not exactly the biggest stretch in the world to assume that he’s attacking the merger because Trump made it clear that’s what he wanted him to do.
The Department of Justice, for its part, says that it was the companies themselves that offered to sell CNN. AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson called that out as a lie: “Throughout this process, I have never offered to sell CNN and have no intention of doing so.”
AT&T now calls the merger’s timing “uncertain” as the DOJ prepares a lawsuit, should they try to merge without selling off Turner or DirecTV.
It’s not entirely clear what happens to CNN in either scenario. Presumably, it would continue to operate as normal in either case, regardless of whether AT&T buys it or sells it off. Ordinarily, the prospect of a communications megacorporation having to split its assets would be a welcome one—it feels odd to be rooting for an $85-billion merger to continue unmolested as though the gigantic, powerful company is the underdog.
But that seems to be what happens when Trump gets involved. The idea that the president of the United States is using his immense power to try to hurt a news organization because he doesn’t like its bland, completely factual coverage of him is infuriating. We have a leader with an ego so fragile that he won’t hesitate to use his time and the nation’s tax dollars to attack the most boring news channel in the country because of perceived slights—a leader so petty he thinks nothing of using his immense power to blatantly assault journalistic integrity. So even though by doing so, we’re supporting faceless, monolithic corporations, it still feels right to oppose Trump’s wishes. CNN may not be the best news organization around, and it’s not the easiest to root for, but Trump still makes it a no-brainer.